Sam Harris Isn’t as Smart as I Thought

I am putting this is red now. It is now one month since this article was written. I am more angry at the Sam Harris Cultists than I was before. And still I get comments from you sub-geniuses. Interesting fact: not one of you has shown any indication that you even listened to the podcast. You don’t know what you are talking about. And for the most recent cultist, this isn’t philosophy class. I’m not publishing a book. And I am not a journalist! Can’t you people tell a personal blog when you see one?! I have a full-time job editing a large tech website. It speaks incredibly lowly of your God-substitute that you feel the need to defend him on a small (though doubtless extremely successful by your own personal standards) personal blog.

How can I make this so clear that even the sub-genius Sam Harris cultists will understand: you aren’t welcome here. I don’t care what you have to say (not that one of you has said anything worth responding to). The fact that you think Sam Harris is a great (or even good) public intellectual shows you are ignorant of what a true public intellectual (eg, Edward Said) is. I’m fine with having debates, but you people offer nothing. And you complain (as you have been for years) that I just don’t understand poor Dr Harris. Of course, it never occurs to you to look at even one other article that I’ve written about Harris — in particular the nice things I’ve said about him when he was making more sense and wasn’t nothing more than a celebrity for the almost intelligent.

But since I don’t believe you will go away, I’m simply turning off comments. I don’t even remember what I wrote. That’s how important Sam Harris is in my life. In the past, he’s had some interesting things to say. But anyone so ignorant of Charles Murray’s career as to think him some oppressed man who can’t get his message out is delusional. And it is also more evidence that Harris himself has major problems with his own racism.

One last thing. Do you really think a 1,000 word blog post is supposed to do a thorough job of refuting Sam Harris in a conversation that ran over two hours? Really?! (Why would I need to given that Klein, in his mild style showed how wrong Harris was.) That’s probably what angers me the most. I just read this article again, and other than the misinformation (see comments) about Neanderthals (which make Sam Harris look even more ignorant), I stand by it all. I’m not going to go line by line over what Harris said. For one thing, it would be boring given how much he repeats himself.

—Frank Moraes

PS: I had never thought before to check what RationalWiki had to say about Sam Harris. All my experience has been direct. I didn’t know about a number of things in this well researched article. I don’t expect the Cultists to read it. And if they do, they will be secure in the knowledge that it is just yet another case of Sam Harris being misunderstood. Because Harris never writes anything wrong. It’s just that most readers can’t understand this amazingly big-hearted humanitarianism when he cherry-picks information to make Muslims look like a particularly vile religion and writes apologias for killing them. It’s sad that Sam Harris has just bought a bill of goods. It’s sadder that millions of subgeniuses can’t see or even accept that there might be more rational people on the other side. Go read the article!

Sam Harris

Sam Harris “Debates” Ezra Klein

Sam Harris and Ezra Klein had a debate with each other for over two hours about… To be honest, I don’t know what it was about. It was supposed to be about the connection between intelligence and race. It was also supposed to be about Harris’ new BFF Charles Murray and how badly he is treated.

Let me get the elephant in the room out of the way right now: poor Charles Murray. It’s certainly true that Murray gets attacked a lot. But it really has little to do with The Bell Curve where he argued that blacks are dumber than whites, that there is nothing we can do about it, so we should just get rid of affirmative action and all those programs that try to make the nation more economically fair.

The Bell Curve was co-authored by Richard Herrnstein. He was the scientist and I believe that he was responsible for all the science in the book. He also died of lung cancer the year the book came out. So it was really Murray’s book. And like all Murray’s books, it was political. All of his books push a radical libertarian ideology. He is in favor of the universal basic income (UBI), but only because he’s a pragmatist. Like many libertarians, he’s for the UBI as a way of getting rid of all other social programs and has even said that the UBI would allow the nation to spend 10 percent less on helping the poor.

Sam Harris: Repetition Machine

What was most interesting in the debate was that Sam Harris would make a comment like, “All these people don’t want to deal with race and IQ because it makes them uncomfortable.” Ezra Klein would respond insightfully. And then Sam Harris would just repeat what he had already said in different words.

I’ve had debates with people like this. They don’t really understand the subject they are talking about at a deep level. What they think is really just emotional. So they think that if they just repeat what they believe enough, others will agree. Because they don’t actually have a rational argument. They just believe. This is hilarious coming from New Atheist Sam Harris.

The Sam Harris Cult

Of course Sam Harris leads a kind of cult. There are many young men (Yes: men!) who hang on his every word and fight with anyone who disagrees with him. So as soon as the podcast was out, I saw reddit and blog posts with titles like, “Sam Harris Destroys Ezra Klein.” Ah, no.

In fact, I had a reasonably favorable opinion of Harris before this debate. Now I think he’s kind of a dullard who within 5 years will be a conservative and frequent guest on Fox News. And it won’t matter to his cult members, most of whom now believe themselves to be liberal.

John von Neumann

I was very tickled by something that Sam Harris said about the great mathematician (among other things) John von Neumann:

I mean, for instance, I would bet my life that my IQ is lower than John von Neumann’s was. The chances of that being true are 100 percent. Of course this is mere speculation, but this is speculation that you could bet the fate of the world on. Despite what Turkheimer says in his article, in his tweets, you can make very high probability speculations. Do you think I’m inferior to John von Neumann? Do you think I think I’m inferior to John von Neumann?

The Inferiority Argument: von Neumann Edition

What he’s getting at is that just because he thinks blacks are stupid doesn’t mean he thinks they are inferior. There are many problems with this. I figure that Harris’ IQ is something in the low genius area. And that means that even though he knows he’s no von Neumann, he’s smart. He’s a guy who people look up to. He has many fans. He’s rich. Any book he wants to write will be published.

Now compare this with a black man who is also a genius. But he’s looked down on in society. If he ever got in trouble with the law, he’d probably be lucky to have a job as a janitor. He wouldn’t get all the social perks of a white man of his intelligence.

And that’s true of black people at every intelligence level. As Ezra Klein noted, black families with $100,000 incomes live, on average, in neighborhoods where the median income is $30,000. Sam Harris ignores the question.

Charles Murray Isn’t a Scientist

Harris wants to make it all about science. But it’s not about science for Murray. But it makes Harris feel good to pretend that Murray is in the business of science. Because if he is, it means that Sam Harris lives in a meritocracy. And it means that he deserves the excellent life that he has.

Of course, Sam Harris doesn’t believe in free will (I agree with him). He got lucky! But given that luck, he deserves his wonderful life.

And for the record, I do think Sam Harris is inferior to John von Neumann. Von Neumann made the world a better place and Sam Harris is making it a worse place.

By the way, Harris used that example many times in the debate. Ezra Klein ignored it because it’s stupid.

Sam Harris Doesn’t Like Neanderthals

Ezra KleinAnother of Sam Harris’ repeated examples had to do with Neanderthals. He noted that Europeans had Neanderthal genes but that Africans did not. His point was that had it been the other way around, everyone would have freaked out. This is very strange. First, Africans do have Neanderthal genes — just less than Europeans. Second, where did he get his education abut Neanderthals? The Flintstones? Neanderthals had a larger brain to body ratio than humans, indicating that they might have been smarter. What they didn’t have were well developed parts of the brain used for communication.

Now it’s true that Neanderthals as a going concern went extinct. But humans went one person from going extinct. We are all the descendants of a single woman. As I recall, the total world populations of humans got down to less than one thousand. So the fact that humans are alive today and Neanderthal are not is a simple matter of luck.

King of the Subgeniuses

I can see why all these relatively bright but not terribly bright guys love Sam Harris. First, he’s a lot smarter than they are and so can convince them with plausible but facile arguments. Plus, he feeds their prejudices in a way that allows them to think that they aren’t prejudiced — just “rational” and “scientific.”

There is no point in listening to Sam Harris. His debate with Ezra Klein showed that he has nothing to add to the public debate. He’s actually starkly closed minded. I can see why Noam Chomsky didn’t want to debate him. Chomsky would have had to stop Harris after every sentence to correct him.

If you are a Sam Harris fan, I beg you: read some real intellectuals. Harris is a pretender.

This entry was posted in Politics by Frank Moraes. Bookmark the permalink.

About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

29 thoughts on “Sam Harris Isn’t as Smart as I Thought

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with this.

    I was a listener of Harris for about a year and really appreciated most of the conversations he’s had. He was in, in my head at least, an excellent conversationist. I know Ezra Klein’s work to a much lesser extent.

    When this fiasco began I would argue my “biases” were in favor of Harris (as much as I’d like to claim I don’t have any), but that changed quickly reading the email exchange. I went back to the Chomsky email exchange after. What a disaster. What a fucking disaster.

    I’ve read all related materials to this, and tuned into the debate. I firmly stand in Klein’s camp due to the number of legitimate things Klein brought up that were never addressed. It bothers me that there’s not a better way to have these conversations. The utmost extreme is watching Kellyanne Conway. I’m quickly losing hope in civil debate, truth and the likes.

    • Yeah, I used to really like Harris. I’m still very fond of his pamphlet on free will. But I really don’t understand why there are so many public “intellectuals” who insist upon spending most of their time talking and writing about the things they know the least about. Obviously Harris has a problem with Islam. The normal thing for an intellectual to do would be to become an expert on it. But as far as I can tell, Harris knows no more about Islam than he did 15 years ago. It’s still just knowing a quote here and a quote there. He knows none of the history. And it’s a shame, because he is a good conversationalist. He has a lot to offer. But he spends far too much time talking about the one thing that he is more irrational (racist) and uneducated about.

  2. Re-read that Harris/Chomsky thing. I’m surprised you would put Harris in the same category as yourself. Morally, I don’t know (perhaps you eat babies, it’s somewhat possible, with some yummy sauce) — but intellectually, that’s not even a consideration.

    Harris is reasonably skilled at composing sentences/paragraphs. This is a learned talent, and pretty much anybody can do it, just as anybody can learn how to braise a roast. People who go to the fanciest schools have an easier time learning it. It’s no indication of a functioning moral mind.

    What one puts into the sentences & paragraphs is a different matter. And Harris puts close to nothing in his. I didn’t like latter-day Hitchens on many fronts, but there was more in his anti-God book than Harris could muster up in a lifetime.

    If the New Atheist community continues to hang their hat on philosophical lightweights like Harris, they’re doomed to failure, and good riddance. That ilk always had a strong glibertarian stench to it.

    • All I mean is that if Harris were educated in differential equations, he would be about as good as I am. I think I’m far more nuanced in my thinking, but that’s a different thing. I do think Harris is a pretty smart guy. But he clearly has issues. One of them, I think, is intellectual insecurity. There are lots of people who put me to shame. But I’m perfectly comfortable with my intellectual skills. I always get the impression that Harris is afraid people will think he’s stupid. And the more he does that, the more people do.

      • @Frank — I think we approach Mr. Harris from different viewpoints. Yours, it seems to me, is that of a scientist who taught himself how to write. As such, Harris appears competent to you. I’m a talentless loser who taught himself how to write. As such, I can smell Harris’s shtick from a mile off. It’s what a twerp does when they get caught lying on a resume; you double down. I’ve been guilty of this so many times, I’ve lost count. I know a hack when I read one, because I’m one myself — and Harris is a fraud.

        Oh, well, at least I’ve never advocated nuclear war. Which Harris has absolutely done. At one point, the New Atheist thing was so popular, you could put any batshit crazy idea into a book and sell copies of you were famous enough.

        • I really wish you wouldn’t put yourself down like that. It’s not true and you should know that.

          I’m not sure you’re right because I’ve noticed Harris’ shtick — especially his constant refrain of, “You don’t understand me; you’re taking me out of context.” Even if that’s true, he gives aid and comfort to bigots. I bet at least 95% of his followers hated Muslims before they found Harris. And Harris is great for them because he makes their hatred sound reasonable.

          Also, if you get off the subject of Muslims and religion in general, he’s not bad. I did like his boooklet Free Will.

          • @Frank: “Also, if you get off the subject of Muslims and religion in general, he’s not bad. I did like his boooklet Free Will.”

            Yeah, I can see that. I enjoyed some of Dawkins’s books about evolutionary biology before I knew he was a New Atheist hero.

            It gets hard for me to tolerate this stuff. As a fan of good art, I should separate the work from the person. Yet it’s difficult. Always has been, always will be, with people who create anything. In their time and place, however, I feel it’s reasonable to be critical of their public actions. Some people pimped for war on Iraq and gave it a pseudo-justification via explaining how much they loathed religion. Some people did not.

            The first Harris book I read was “End Of Faith,” and it’s such hot garbage I wanted to toss it out the car window. But the people who gave it to me were driving, and interested in the personal aspect of wrestling with faith. (Harris isn’t; he Knows Better Than Those Dolts.) So I haven’t been much motivated to look up his other writing since. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn some of it is good.

            I wasn’t putting down myself as a writer; I know I’ve done some decent work, and I’m proud of it. Yet I’ve occasionally half-assed stuff to meet a deadline. “End Of Faith” probably wasn’t written on a deadline — it’s possibly a very personal testament — but it’s half-assed. I know lazy work when I see it.

            And the notion of how that junkburger represents Harris at his most impassioned tells you a lot about the guy. Or as much as we need to know about whether Harris has anything of vague use to say vis-a-vis our time. How the future will regard his sentence-composition skills, I haven’t the foggiest.

            • As for Harris’ writing, he’s a very good non-fiction writer. But all the writers who work for me are in his range. Of course, I haven’t read any of their longer work. But I do have writers who have published multiple books. (Pay attention young people who want to be writers: it sucks!)

              The funny thing is that this recent stuff with Harris has made me think that I should read more on free will. The truth is that what Harris thinks about free will is exactly what I long have. That’s never a good sign. I’m smart, but not that smart. And usually, I find that there is another way of looking at an issue that changes my mind. I have read some Catholic (mostly Aquinas) writing on free will and I don’t find it compelling at all. But it wouldn’t surprise me that there are modern defenses of free will that I would find compelling.

              But what you bring up is difficult. It is quite common for someone who is an expert at one thing to think they will be brilliant at everything. I haven’t read it, but modern theologians conciser Newton’s theological writing as trash. Harris isn’t really an expert on anything. How he got his PhD shows what a sham the whole process is (at least if you have rich and famous parents and get your PhD in the area where they are most admired). At least I can say that my PhD work was done entirely by me and that I was an expert in global warming (so much has changed that I no longer consider myself an expert, but I still understand the fundamentals and have stayed up on it enough to debate any denier.

              With Dawkins, you are quite right. In fact, Dawkins is a good writer when discussing evolution. His atheist work is incredibly dull. At least Hitchens was always an interesting writer. Terry Eagleton combined the two in his rebuttal to their big books: Ditchkins (I think). But the real problem with these guys is that they aren’t experts. If you haven’t done so, read Jay McCollough’s excellent comment mostly about Neanderthals. But I have the luxury of loving to be educated. Had I made those mistakes in book form, it would be embarrassing. (Of course, I hope that I would not make such errors in book form.)

              I’ve always thought I was good at separating the writer from the work. And I am: when the writer died before I was born. But, for example, I now find it uncomfortable to listen to Bill Cosby. Of course, I wasn’t a big fan to start with. A better discussion is Woody Allen who I’ve just completely stopped watching. A friend of mine who is also an admirer of him and she just refuses to believe the allegations. That’s fine. I did at first. But it got to a point where I feel that I know. It’s horrible what I think he’s done and it has spoiled his art. I know it’s possible that Dylan’s memory is false. That does happen quite a lot. And if that were the only evidence, I would think that. But it isn’t the only evidence. And unless Mia Farrow has created a conspiracy, he’s guilty. And that’s certainly possible. But Occam’s razor says he’s guilty. And Allen’s affair with Soon Yi is very creepy and that is not in dispute, and makes the rest of the allegations seem more credible. I remember my first wife who, when we met, didn’t like Allen’s films. But after a few years, we went to see Alice (in those days I saw any Allen picture the day it opened), and my wife said, “It’s so nice to go to a film and know you are going to like it.” Yeah. It was.

              Still: the first minute of this gives me chills. I don’t know how they worked out the blocking: the word “management” stops on a close-up of Danny (Allen). It’s amazing. And the rest of the film is simply perfect story telling. (Of course, you have to see the whole film to know why the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade makes Tina (Farrow) cry and why Danny is so upset about Barney. It’s probably the only Allen film I can get through, and I cry the whole way.

              • @Frank — Allen is a problem. He’s a master filmmaker. So is Polanski. And their work has great stuff done by other artists, as well. So John Huston’s performance in “Chinatown” and Martin Landau’s in “Crimes & Misdemeanors” are things I can’t enjoy the same way I used to. (Of course, the Polanski rape case was before I was old enough to see “Chinatown,” but I didn’t learn about it until later.)

                It’s easy for me to avoid new work by problematic artists because I simply don’t read/watch/listen to as much as I once did. If Harris or Dawkins came out with a brilliant book tomorrow, I wouldn’t be opposed to reading it; it’d just be buried so far under my “to read” list that I’d never get around to it.

                • I think Polanski is easier for me because I think of him as dead. And I never had the kind of attachment to him that I had to Allen. So I find I can watch Chinatown, but then it’s so great. And you mentioning Huston reminds me that as far as I can tell, he also did a great job in Orson Welles’ last film The Other Side of the Wind. They keep promising but I am beginning to doubt that it will be finished and released before I die.

                  Interestingly, to see if I could do it, I did watch Broadway Danny Rose this afternoon. It is a great film. It probably helps that I don’t have the impression that Allen was always like this. It was something that developed. Maybe it was even a short-term thing due to stress or whatever. Temporary insanity? I’d love to believe that. One thing I know: he liked really young women. Until Farrow, his relationships were long over before he worked with his romantic partners. Diane Keaton was 24 when she made her first film with him. That was a fairly reasonable relationship, but that’s just one example. And what is Manhattan about? Wood Allen’s 40 year old character having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl (who happened to be the only emotionally mature person in the film).

                  I don’t know. It’s hard. I have a theory that a great deal of this kind of behavior stems for inequality in power (which can be money or someone who can give you a part in a film). When all your wildest dreams come true, you look out for other ways to make the high last — and those ways are often vile. Unless you are David Foster Wallace, who I see more and more like a Christ figure.

                  • @Frank — what is “Manhattan” about? To be, it’s about the photography by Gordon Willis. I ignore the rest of it, it creeps me out.

                    I’ve been watching classic films for years with my spouse, it’s one of the feeble few things I’m able to add in this partnership. I went to film school, like an idiot, and so I do grasp some basics. Even before the recent stuff on Allen, I didn’t put “Manhattan” on. Something about that movie didn’t feel right. It’s gorgeously shot, though.

                    A tough one is Polanski’s “Death And The Maiden.” It’s a feminist film, expertly made by a child rapist. I don’t know how to take it.

      • “All I mean is that if Harris were educated in differential equations, he would be about as good as I am.”

        This sounds like the fallacy that intelligence is an in-born quality, and not something that can be trained (which is at the core of the racist bullshit in The Bell Curve). As a math teacher, I spend a lot of time trying to convince my students that your statement is true of almost anyone. Unless you have a severe neurological impairment, you can learn math. So, to me, the statement that “with training in math, you can be good in math” is practically a tautology.

        • I’ve tried to respond to this in detail, but I’m flailing. What I think I’m saying is that had Harris gone to college with me, he would have done as well. And that is largely because of the intellectual environment that we grew up in from day one. Obviously, differential equation solving is not intelligence (indeed, it’s really more intuition; it isn’t like algebra where there are rules; with dif eqns it is more like you see it or you don’t; there are some rules and general guidelines; but once I was in grad school, those didn’t help me at all). But I know you’ve read me for a long time and I would assume you would know if you gave me young children to teach, they would all grow up to love and be good at math. I don’t think that’s about rules or teaching. I think it is because the children would learn my enthusiasm.

  3. “What was most interesting in the debate was that Sam Harris would make a comment like, “All these people don’t want to deal with race and IQ because it makes them uncomfortable.” Ezra Klein would respond insightfully. And then Sam Harris would just repeat what he had already said in different words.”

    Ah, yes, that reminds me of this video, where the alt-right troll with the absurd moniker of “Baked Alaska” tried to show up intelligence expert Malcolm Nance. Malcolm gave a long, detailed explanation as to why the phrase “white pride” has negative connotations and terrorist connections that “black pride” does not, and all Baked would do in response is keep shouting “you’re a hypocrite! Everyone should be proud of their race!”

    • Yeah, I watched the whole thing when I saw it was Nance. But it was annoying. There’s another aspect of this. In America, being white is to have no race. If a white man rapes and tortures a woman to death, it’s an evil man. But if a black man does the same thing, there is this unspoken (in polite society) that this was done by an evil black man. So to say you are proud to be black is to push back against that racism. When a white man says he is proud to be white, he’s pushing back against the equality of the races.

      But if I were Nance, I would not allow that conversation to be put on video, and I would leave the conversation after about a minute in any case. Did you read what the poster said of the video? Basically: Baked Alaska was just a poor white guy (with every advantage in the world) who was wasn’t allowed to be proud of his race while Nance (who’s actually done something with his life — something the poster scoffs at) is a hypocrite. Nance is saying it isn’t racist to say he’s proud to be black because of people like Baked Alaska — and millions more who think the same thing but know better than to say it. And 20,000 white supremacists get to watch it and feel superior and oppressed.

  4. *descendants of a single woman. Decedent means something very different.

    • Thanks! As everyone around here should know, nothing is copy edited — except occasionally by readers.

  5. I have a couple issues with one part of this article, mostly because it relates to my own scholarship. Firstly, Neanderthals did not exhibit a larger degree of encephalization than anatomically modern humans (AMH). I hear this a lot from laymen, and as misconceptions go I much prefer it to the caveman-with-club myth. In any case, Neanderthals did have a larger mean cranial capacity than AMH, but they also had significantly more body mass. Their degree of encephalization (brain-to-body ratio) was essentially the same as our species’.

    Neanderthals were remarkably similar to AMH; so much so that they were able to produce fertile offspring. In biology, a species is defined as any group of organisms that can mate in the wild and produce reproductively viable progeny. By that definition, Neanderthals belonged to the same species as AMH. Indeed, there are a considerable number of paleoanthropologists who subscribe to this view, referring to our respective clades as subspecies (i.e. Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens neanderthalensis).

    The second issue I take is the claim that Neanderthals had less developed communication centers in the brain. That idea comes from twentieth century efforts to explain their extinction. At that time, there wasn’t enough data to say otherwise, but recent genetic research, archaeological evidence, and osteological analyses demonstrate that their brain organization wasn’t markedly different from ours. In fact, some of the parts of the brain responsible for linguistic capabilities (e.g. the Wernicke’s area and the Broca’s area) were comparable in terms of size. And perhaps most importantly, they had the identical FOXP2 allele that humans do, which is a gene necessary for language.

    Furthermore, I find it difficult to believe that humans would’ve mated enough with them to leave a genetic imprint if there weren’t sufficient cognitive similarities. There are those who take issue with this supposition, pointing out that pregnancies don’t necessarily require sexual consent. Nevertheless, we are talking about foraging populations, who by and large existed in very egalitarian sociopolitical units, and in comparison to agricultural or industrial societies, were quite peaceful. I’m not saying that there wasn’t conflict, but early humans did not experience the degree of violence that emerged with complex societies.

    Ethnographic research provides important insights; for one, there are many foraging (hunter-gatherer) cultures that, before contact with Westerners, had no concept of rape–they didn’t even have words for it. It was simply inconceivable to them. Rape, after all, is about power, and in foraging groups with egalitarian sociopolitical structures, coercive power over other group members is not something that people can really achieve, or even seek out. Things like reciprocity and community integration are extremely important mores, which not only structures intragroup cultural practices, but also intergroup relations. It does not benefit hunter-gatherers to fight with one another, and there are complex social structures that prevent it. Remember, early foraging populations in Pleistocene Europe would’ve only numbered about 30 individuals; not enough to maintain reproductive viability. This necessitates good relationships with your neighbors. I see this in my own area of study (North American prehistory). Once again, I must reiterate that I’m not denying that conflict and war occurred. It was just rare and not to the same degree as we are accustomed to. It is a very Western thing to focus on aggression when studying other cultures, and there are numerous examples of misinterpretations in early anthropological studies because of such biases. Keep in mind that even scientists who pretend to be objective are influenced by their situated perspectives. The questions you ask shape your research.

    I apologize for the tangent, but my point here is that Neanderthals and humans likely had relatively peaceful interactions. My own hypothesis is that mating between Neanderthals and AMH occurred for economic reasons. Another very modern and mostly Western concept is marriage for love. Throughout the majority of history, marriage occurred to benefit the group, increase status, and/or create economic opportunities. As AMH entered Ice Age Europe, they found themselves in a region with very low population density. Neanderthals would’ve provided a good source of reproductive potential. This, and given the archaeological evidence of symbolic behavior, suggests to me that Neanderthals had a very human-like linguistic repertoire.

    I think a big part of superiority/inferiority explanations for Neanderthal extinction comes from humanity’s need to feel special. Why did Neanderthals go extinct while humans survived? Because we’re unique! We’ere intelligent! We’re superior! We had language and culture and art! Well, Neanderthals had both of those things too, not to mention a very sophisticated stone tool industry. Moreover, in a way they didn’t go extinct because their genes live on in people of European descent (and in Asians and SOME Africans, although to a much lesser extent).

    Finally, the third problem with this article are the statements about Mitochondrial Eve. It is a common misconception that we were one person away from extinction. This is not true. There were plenty of other women alive at the time of Mitochondrial Eve, she was just the lucky one whose genes ended up in all of us. Any number of circumstances could’ve contributed to this, but remember that Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is only inherited from mothers. That being the case, many of Eve’s contemporaries might not have had daughters who survived to pass on their own genes. Whatever the case, Evolution requires that we share a common ancestor; it doesn’t necessarily mean that common ancestor was the last or the first of a species.

    Another minor correction: the bottleneck you referred to was about 70,000 years ago and the best estimates place the human population at 15,000-30,000. Keep in mind, however, that estimating population at such deep time depths is notoriously difficult. It’s hard enough to estimate the population of North America at the time of European contact and that was only a few hundred years ago (not to mention all the genetic, historical, and archaeological evidence to help refine those calculations). Additionally, this bottleneck did NOT coincide with Mitochondrial Eve’s existence. Although it is difficult to pin down a date for when she lived (the margins of error are large), it is most commonly reported as being about 200,000 BP.

    Anyway, I apologize this ran so long. I was on roll! :) If you read this far you have my thanks!

    • Not at all! Thank you so much! That was very enlightening. I think you understand that my point was that it is a stupid stereotype that Neanderthals were brutes with clubs. I don’t spend nearly the time writing as I used to. Three years ago, I probably would have looked up the bottleneck data. Sad to say, I though my information on Neanderthals was solid. I never thought, however, that their cranial capacity was much larger — just that on average it was. I had thought that it was believed that they had smaller frontal lobes, which I thought had something to do with language, but I’m not sure of that. I’m very pleased to be wrong. And the picture you paint of human-Neanderthals interactions rings true. I’ve always wondered about that. But it never occurred to me just how much sex had to be going on to get 2-3 percent of the genetic code. And trading is a great guess. It seems like there must have been at least some of that going on, since we know different human groups have done that.

      I do understand the issue of Mitochondrial Eve. I thought it myself when writing that sentence. If she had never been born, there would have been one or more other women whose genes would have been passed down. But it is a simple way to explain that humans could have gone extinct if the environment been slightly different. But 15K is not so bad. I thought it was much worse.

      Would you mind if I posted this comment as an article? It won’t get the readership that it deserves sitting here. It would be posted under your name. All I would need from you is maybe a two sentence biography. And I would give you final okay before publishing. I would be most grateful. This is not the only time I’ve written about Neanderthals. Despite my ignorance and out-of-date knowledge, I’m very protective of them. And I made the same point you did about humans wanting to feel superior to Neaderthals in Are Humans Better than Neanderthals? (Actually, I’d appreciate it if you read that because I notice I make some other claims that might be wrong.)

      Regardless, thank you so much! Now I want to get a book. If you have any recommendations, let me know. Thanks!

      • @Frank: First of all, I totally got the point you were making; I just knew that you had written about Neanderthals before and I thought you’d appreciate some added information. I’m protective of them too, and I take paleoanthropology classes every chance I get. I have a soft spot for them. Their public perception has taken a beating ever since Boule’s early reconstructions in which he mistook a severely arthritic Neanderthal male for a hunched ape-like creature. I get really irritated when people say things like “what a Neanderthal” to denote that someone is being simple-minded, violent, and/or stupid.

        And I would be happy to let you post it, but since it’s going on the front page, so to speak, just let me fact check myself and find some sources to cite. Since it was just a comment on a blog post I pulled most of this from memory, and all my views on Neanderthals aren’t shared across the board among paleoanthropologists. Full disclosure: the notion that Neanderthals are a subspecies of Homo sapiens is very much a minority position.

        You (or I) can edit it to make more sense as a blog post. I think it will need a little bit of context. I’ll grab some sources and write up a short bio. Do you have my current email? I’ve got it attached to these posts, but I don’t know if you can see it.

        Also, a quick note: I didn’t say that Neanderthals had a much larger cranial capacity, just that the mean cranial capacity was larger. That combined with a larger mean body mass equates to very similar numbers when it comes to the encephalization ratio.

        Thanks! I’ll be in touch.

    • Ethnographic research provides important insights; for one, there are many foraging (hunter-gatherer) cultures that, before contact with Westerners, had no concept of rape–they didn’t even have words for it. It was simply inconceivable to them. Rape, after all, is about power, and in foraging groups with egalitarian sociopolitical structures, coercive power over other group members is not something that people can really achieve, or even seek out…

      Rape is not solely about power, it can be about sex.
      For instance, in the book Missoula regarding rapes that occurred on college campuses, many of the men who raped women were doing so because they wanted to get laid and were indifferent to the idea of asking for permission first since their wants were paramount. It wasn’t because they wanted to control the women, it was for sex.
      So a small group of humans that meets up with a small group of neanderthals could easily resulted in one or more of the women being raped from either species. Even if there is no society perception that women are objects to be controlled sexually, a male doesn’t automatically ask for permission first before he takes advantage of say a drunk sleeping woman in a campsite after a celebration. He is horny, she’s there, he rapes her.

      • @Elizabeth — I was at the University of Southern California in 1990. The LA police chief at the time, Daryl Gates, was an alumni of one USC fraternity, so members of that fraternity were never prosecuted for anything. I knew some of these men (got pretty badly beat up by a few of them one night for not being rah-rah enough over Iraq War 1).

        There was a guy in the dorm a few doors down; I’d seen him dragging unconscious women into the bathroom. His behavior and that of the frat were pretty common knowledge.

        He knocks on my door one night, says “you seem like a smart guy, can I ask you something?” Like, if he was having some crisis of conscience, and I was a priest. The big question? “Do you ever jerk off?”

        Because, among his frat brothers, masturbation was a sign of weakness. Meant you weren’t Alpha Male enough to get laid. (Consent or not didn’t matter, the important thing was notching another bedpost.)

        Not sure if that story is related to the point you were making, it was just a completely weird moment.

        You’ll be happy to know that, after Gates was ousted as police chief, the families of abused women sued the shit outta USC and got the entire board shitcanned; I heard they’ve cleaned up their act a lot since then. At least I hope they have.

        • @James: I wonder how things at USC and other large colleges are now. Even at my university, which is quite small (~5,000 students) and overwhelmingly liberal in both student body and faculty, a female student was recently given rohypnol and raped. It prompted the administration to hang posters about date rape drugs all over the hallways and stairwells, as well as posters about consent in the men’s restrooms. I’m not sure if they did much else. I did notice that now the mandatory introductory course includes a segment on consent. I didn’t even have that just five years ago. It doesn’t help that adult and transfer students don’t need to take that course, however.

          • I honestly have no clue. That experience was limited to a very specific school in a very specific time & place with a very specific student population. (AKA, just enough of them were connected to power and violently dumb.)

            @Jay — I really didn’t mean to draw any specific conclusions from it, nor refute what you or Elizabeth were discussing. I shouldn’t have butted in. It was just a bizarre, really morally debilitating experience (why complain about what everyone accepts as normal?) And so I whine from time to time about being a coward. It’s my way.

      • @Elizabeth: Fair point, but the men raping women on college campuses are reproducing hegemonic notions of masculinity in a society in which women are undervalued and often seen as objects for male pleasure/use. While I’m not glorifying foraging populations, the notion that Neanderthal genes in contemporary humans derive mostly from rape does not correspond to evidence, ethnographic or otherwise. While ethnographic analogy doesn’t always apply, it is often a fairly good way to make inferences about what we find in the archaeological record.

        A male might not automatically ask for permission before he rapes a women at a campsite, but if he does that he will have very real consequences. In our society it can be hard to even prosecute it. It has taken a great deal of work and a grassroots movement to even get it into the public discourse. In foraging societies, social structures shape behavior in the opposite direction. Men didn’t want to piss off the ladies because, even in cultures that weren’t matrilineal, they often depended on women for their labor. The whole “Man the Hunter” myth of dominant males bringing back food for the submissive, helpless females is a very Western notion from a time when anthropology was an exceedingly male-dominated discipline. That view has long since been rejected, but it remains in the public consciousness. You have to be careful not to apply modern Western norms and notions of gender to ancient populations, particularly when they lived under very different sociopolitical circumstances than we are accustomed to. Women tend to be highly valued in foraging populations and occupy higher statuses than were possible in more complex sedentary societies.

        I love the accounts of Euro-American women taken or adopted by native groups during the contact period who were then unwilling to go back to their natal communities. Of course the white men thought they were brainwashed or something along those lines. It makes sense, though. In my area, the dominant tribes at the time were matrilineal and matrilocal, and women occupied high statuses. Those women found themselves in societies in which they were more valued and had more opportunities to have a say outside of just the domestic sphere. But I’m going off on another tangent.

        Also, I very much doubt a Neanderthal or early European would have been able to take advantage of a drunk sleeping woman considering this is a good 20,000-30,000 years before alcoholic beverages were invented! (Sorry, I know I’m pedantic).

  6. For an article which effectively describes someone as dumb, the standard of writing is quite low – and that’s being chartable.

    Glass houses and stones…

    • I hope you are still around Spud! I am always interested in anyone who can help my writing. But I suspect you didn’t read the whole article. I looked through and saw one error early on where I wrote “book” when it should have been “books.” (These are the kinds of errors that little minds make a big deal of.) If you have any other criticisms of my writing, please let me know. But I’m pretty sure you noticed that one error and only read to the point where I wrote, “Now I think he’s kind of a dullard.” But that was just a flourish. I actually said a couple of nice things about Harris’ intellect. None of this matters though, does it?

      You are a Harris cultist who cannot brook any argument against the perfection of Dear Leader. So what are you doing around here?

      As for the writing, you show yourself to be a fool. I read the article again (which annoyed me because I don’t like to do that) and it is perfectly fine, professional-grade writing. You didn’t even provide a hint as to the problem, because you really don’t know what you are talking about. And “glass houses” would be appropriate if I were criticizing Harris’ writing. There are plenty of great intellectuals who can’t write well. The “glass houses” analogy would only work if you could show that my thinking was bad.

      Please go back to Harris, because, based on what you’ve written, he has all the answers that you will ever need.

  7. This was the most sad and pathetic attempt of journalism i’ve seen all year! Gj!

Comments are closed.